Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Reflections on Yosemite and Mass Wasting

OK, not philosophical reflections, but literal reflections. One of my favorite spots to visit on the floor of Yosemite Valley is the Mirror Lake area, due to the relative peace and serenity brought about by the lack of cars and other urban distractions. Just people walking about quietly. Mirror Lake is not exactly a lake, and not exactly a river, and for a good part of the year it is entirely dry.

Tenaya Creek is a relatively minor tributary of the Merced River, but Tenaya Canyon is nearly as deep as the Grand Canyon. That would seem to be a bit of a mystery, since the size of glaciers in a canyon can be roughly comparable to the size of the watershed, and it looks like there was a very large glacier here. Studies of the glacial topography help to explain the disparity: large masses of glacier ice spilled over the divides from the Tuolumne River drainage, adding to the ice load in Tenaya Canyon. As big as they were, glaciers never overrode the summit of Half Dome, which looms thousands of feet above the lake. They instead undercut part of the base of the dome, taking advantage of joint patterns in the granitic rock to quarry rock away from the 700 foot-high face.Mirror Lake developed several thousand years ago when a large rockfall collapsed off the north wall of the canyon, damming up Tenaya Creek. The lake mostly filled with sand and was turning into a meadow, but heavy riverflows during spring runoff scoured out the river channel and left some very wide pools that are excellent for photographing (and just appreciating) the cliffs and domes that are reflected from above.

Lest one thinks that the rockfalls in Yosemite are a thing of the past, a large rockfall occurred here just a few years ago (see some posts on the Ahwiyah Point fall here and here). Ahwiyah Point is the prominent summit just east of Half Dome (below). The rockfall destroyed hundreds of trees, and a hiking trail, which is still closed to entry due to continuing danger from falling rocks.

Mirror Lake is not hard to get to (a tram stops just about a mile away), and one can even ride a bicycle most of the way up. There is a small network of trails around the pools, and the main trail climbs out of Yosemite at Snow Creek. It is a very beautiful corner of a very beautiful valley. Don't miss it if you get a chance to visit!
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